Oh dear, what will the neighbours say?

Oct 7, 2020

Widodo’s lacklustre leadership – compounded by going soft on corruption and nuzzling up to the army – is opening space to big business, the military and faith fanatics with no interest in reform. This is worrying indeed and should be flashing alerts, particularly to Australia.

The erotemes in the titles reveal much about our nervousness when writing on Indonesia. It’s an exit should the subject complain: ‘Relax. We’re not saying you’re doing this; we’re just pondering.’

Every few years a handful of Australians squint across the Arafura Sea though there’s no pressing urgency. The lookers are usually salaried academics pitching to their peers rather than the public and published abroad. Prophets not without honour except in their own country. But they are good at asking questions.

In 2015 it was former diplomat Ken Ward’s Condemned to Crisis? Three years later came Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae’s anthology Strangers Next Door?

Now Tom Power and Eve Warburton’s collection of essays: Democracy in Indonesia – from Stagnation to Regression?

The answers are yes, yes and yes. After just two decades as the world’s third-largest democracy, the Indonesian version is going down the gurgler, according to the 21 contributors, including eight Indonesians.

When economics professor Emil Salim, 90, – a minister under second president Soeharto – launched the book online he spoke more like a young hothead than a venerated elder, which made his words more powerful:

‘Populist mobilization, growing intolerance, deepening sectarianism, increasingly dysfunctional electoral and representative institutions, and the deterioration of civil liberties.

‘A vibrant democracy requires a total shift of direction in economic development, which has contributed to the ever-increasing unequal distribution of land and other natural resources between a narrow wealthy elite and the mass lower-income class.

‘An effective democracy requires the cutting off of links among local candidates of elected officials by financially strong businesspeople. In brief, the contributors of the book argue for a complete separation from the political and corrupt business behaviours of past regimes if a clean democracy is to survive.’

Concerns are largely being ignored except by a few courageous journalists and civil society activists. They’re suffering failure fatigue as their one-time light on the hill, President Joko Widodo, reveals his pedestrian vision doesn’t lift higher than his obsession with infrastructure.

The situation so far is not as dysfunctional as the US. There’s probably no black hand, just inattention. Democracy evolves or stagnates. Like personal relationships it needs nurturing, not waiting for crises to trigger repairs.

Widodo’s lacklustre leadership – compounded by going soft on corruption and nuzzling up to the army – is opening space to big business, the military and faith fanatics with no interest in reform. This is worrying indeed and should be flashing alerts, particularly to Australia.

Instead, we’re lulled by the cliché that Indonesia supports ‘moderate Islam’. Superficially true, when compared with Saudi Arabia. It’s convenient to forget Aceh provincial religious officials are allowed to publicly thrash adulterers and gays unconscious, blasphemy charges are used to purge dissidents, and Shi’a Muslims in Java get their houses torched.

The assurance also ignores the kingdom’s funding of new mosques across the Republic and promotion of the ultraconservative Wahhabism doctrine. The founder of Tempo magazine Goenawan Mohamad has called this ‘the Arabisation of Indonesia.’ He should have been in this book.

If the Republic continues to drift back to the authoritarianism of last century, when Soeharto’s gun-backed 32-year rule was targeting freedoms, those born this century will face repressions they’ve never experienced – unlike their parents.

Almost 30 per cent of the population is aged under 24. They know more about the outside world and choice. They’re looking for a better deal.

Now with social media they can speak out, though that’s getting dangerous. Dr Ken Setiawan’s chapter is on repression under Widodo and the use of defamation laws to close down critics and make insulting the president an offence.

She writes of ‘illiberal democracy’ … where there are ‘serious limitations on civil liberties and the rule of law.’ She does so with authority. Her father, the poet and intellectual Hersri Setiawan, spent seven brutal years as a political prisoner on Buru Island. That was during Soeharto’s New Order when anyone leaning left was an imagined threat – a censored story still little known in Indonesia.

Defining and measuring democracy is tricky everywhere. The book has tables and charts but these sterile stats will only satisfy data digesters. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Indonesia a ‘flawed democracy’ though embraced by voters – an 81 per cent non-compulsory turn-out at last year’s presidential contest. Compare this with the US 2016 election – 55.7 per cent.

After former general Prabowo Subianto lost, his supporters rioted, though probably not spontaneously. Some interpreted this as yearnings for a dictator; political scientist Burhanuddin Muhtadi argues otherwise: ‘Although they were likely to view democratic performance in negative terms, they still saw democracy as the only game in town’.

Whether electors are getting value for their vote is questionable. In the 2019 general election around 245,000 candidates contested more than 20,000 seats in national and local legislatures. No policies, just airbrushed photos including headgear to prove piety.

A subjective but accessible way is studying the media which Ross Tapsell has been doing for many years. However, in 2019 along with McRae, he was denied entry in a reported ‘crackdown’ on foreign academics.

Suppression of independent inquiry thrives in all autocracies. When last century’s controls were lifted by Soeharto’s immediate successor BJ Habibie, and expanded by fourth president Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid, there was general approval.

The downside was the return from exile of the firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir who allegedly inspired his followers to bomb churches and the Bali nightclub. Surprisingly the greybeard advocate for sharia law doesn’t get an index ref, though his infamy has done much to denigrate post-Soeharto reforms, including democracy.

The latest exploiter of this century’s freedoms is the leader of the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Rizieq Shihab who fronted the successful 2016 campaign to oust and jail the Protestant ethnic Chinese Jakarta Governor Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama. Shihab is apparently in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Tapsell argues ‘the coercion of media owners’ by the Joko Widodo government and the ‘failure of media oligarchs to provide independent critical coverage of Indonesia’s political elite’ contribute to democracy’s decline.

Australians have no cause to sneer. An American –Rupert Murdoch – dominates the Eastern States media. In WA Kerry Stokes controls what most Sandgropers read, see and hear – including the billionaire’s views on dealing with China.

Widodo, for all his faults, comes from a civilian and small business background so has some understanding of how the poor suffer. He still has time to remember their plight.

He can’t stand for a third term which Prabowo may well recontest in 2024 (when he’ll be 72) as he believes he’s destined to lead. If that event, Trump’s rule will look benign.

Soeharto’s former son-in-law was dishonourably discharged from the Army in 1998 for ‘misinterpreting orders’ in the alleged abduction of 23 pro-democracy activists. Thirteen remain missing. He then fled to exile in Jordan but has now been appointed Defence Minister by Widodo, giving him a splendid platform to mount his ‘oligarchic populism’.

Regional elections are scheduled for 9 December 2020. Voters will elect nine governors, 224 regents, and 37 mayors. Prabowo’s features currently dominate street banners supporting his Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party candidates.

Endy Bayuni, a former editor of The Jakarta Post is a rarity in academic analyses – a writer of headlines, not footnotes. The newsman objected to the book’s title: ‘I cannot accept that this backsliding of democracy is irreversible … the overall trajectory has always been to move forward.’

Maybe his optimism is a defence against foreigners initiating critiques which could have been done by locals. The outsiders have certainly used their safe distance to muster some worrying trends.

If these come to pass the next book out of an ANU talkfest will be Farewell Democracy – and no eroteme.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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